How Drinking Coffee Before a Workout Could Improve Your Performance

Sipping on coffee pre-workout could make exercising feel easier and speed up recovery, experts say. Find out how to add the caffeinated drink into your routine to score those perks.

Fitnesswoman having breakfast, drinking coffee and checking smartband
Photo: Ivan Gener / Stocksy

When it comes to multifunctional beverages, coffee easily reigns supreme. You gulp down a cup for a much-needed energy boost on a slow morning at the office. You sip on a mug when you're feeling a bit backed up in hopes of having a successful experience on the porcelain throne. And you may even mix it with alcohol to get through an awkward first date.

And as it turns out, you may want to drink coffee before a workout, too. Here, two registered dietitians break down how fueling up with a cup of coffee could improve your sweat sesh and share tips on how to mix pre-workout coffees into your routine.

The Benefits of Drinking Coffee Before a Workout

Though coffee contains a variety of bioactive compounds, the drink's pre-workout benefits are largely thanks to its caffeine content, says Abby Chan, M.S., R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and the co-owner of EVOLVE Flagstaff in Arizona. ICYDK, caffeine is a naturally occurring substance that stimulates your central nervous system, increasing the rate that messages travel from your brain to your body, says Chan. "It's one of the most well-studied ergogenic — meaning performance-enhancing — aids that's available and legal on the market and within sports," she adds.

Reduces Perceived Effort

Since caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, making you feel more alert and energized, drinking coffee before a workout could influence your rating of perceived exertion (RPE), says Allison Knott, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics in New York City. "You might be able to work out a little bit harder and not necessarily feel like it," she explains. "That's where most of the research has consistently shown a positive effect of the caffeine intake before exercise." In fact, a small 2007 study found that participants who drank coffee before endurance cycling reported a lower RPE than those who drank decaf.

Improves Performance

Sipping on a cup of coffee before a workout could also help you pull off an impressive sweat sesh. Systematic reviews have suggested caffeine has a performance-enhancing effect during power-based sports, resistance exercise, and endurance sports, according to research published in Sports Medicine. More specifically, consuming caffeine ahead of a workout has been found to improve strength and power. And in a study of runners, those who drink coffee ahead of a 1,500-meter run completed the event faster than those who drank decaf.

Speeds Up Recovery

Aside from helping you power through your sweat sesh, drinking coffee before your workout could help speed up your recovery afterward, says Chan. After about 15 minutes of exercise, the level of glucose in your blood begins to drop, and your body will typically resort to glycogen (the stored form of glucose in your liver and muscles) for energy, she explains. That said, "there's some thought that caffeine can mobilize free fatty acids, which your body can then utilize for energy, to spare glycogen," says Chan. "If you can decrease how much glycogen you're utilizing during sport, then by possibly utilizing more fatty acids, then theoretically you can recover faster and better because you're not getting so deep into your energy storage tanks."

Even though caffeine may help you get one step ahead in the recovery process, you still shouldn't skip your post-workout meal. "You should still eat after exercise because no matter what you do or how much caffeine you take in, you will still utilize some of that glycogen," says Chan. To properly recover after a brutal sweat session, you'll need to replenish those glycogen stores by consuming carbohydrates and to provide your muscle tissue with protein, which aids in the repair process, according to information published in the Journal of Sports Medicine.

How Much Coffee Should You Drink Before a Workout?

To score caffeine's performance-boosting benefits, you'll need to consume just 3 to 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight roughly 60 minutes before you start exercising, according to guidelines from the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In a single 8-ounce cup of coffee, you'll nab 80 to 100 milligrams of that energizing stimulant, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Do a little math wizardry, and that means a 150-pound person will need to consume as little as 180 milligrams — the amount found in about two cups of coffee — to see those perks. That said, the exact amount may vary from person to person, depending on how well you tolerate caffeine and other factors, says Knott.

The Risks of Drinking Coffee Before a Workout

Caffeine is generally considered safe, so long as you don't exceed the 400 milligrams per day recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says Knott. Still, some people who are sensitive to caffeine may experience negative side effects from drinking coffee — even if they keep their consumption below that suggested cap, she adds. "That might mean you have gastrointestinal upset, you potentially experience the jitters, or you have a rapid heart rate," says Knott. "At that point, the performance benefit isn't necessarily going to outweigh the risk in the sense of how you're feeling. You want to feel your best going into a workout." (

Even if you can tolerate caffeine without any snags, consuming coffee pre-workout could still have an impact on your sleep. Caffeine has a half-life (re: the amount of time it takes for half the dose to leave your body) of five to six hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So if you were to down a cup or two ahead of a 6 p.m. workout, says Chan, "you could end up prolonging your bedtime, and therefore not get enough sleep or not have restful sleep, so that can also inhibit recovery."

Coffee vs. Pre-Workout Supplements

Coffee isn't the only way you can get your fill of performance-boosting caffeine. Pre-workout supplements also boast caffeine, as well as a blend of ingredients such as creatine, beta-alanine, amino acids, and nitric oxide agents. But there are a few factors to consider when deciding which energizer to consume. For one, the FDA doesn't review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they hit the market. "A lot of supplements are not necessarily third-party tested or regulated — that can mean there might be compounds in the supplement that aren't necessarily clear from the label," says Knott. "Coffee may be potentially safer in that regard."

The quantity of caffeine may also drastically differ between products, says Knott. An 8-ounce cup of coffee may only have 80 to 100 milligrams of caffeine, while a serving of pre-workout might have 150 to 300 milligrams, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "It's going to be a little bit more challenging — although not impossible — to get that much caffeine from coffee versus something that might be as simple as a scoop or two of pre-workout," says Knott. If you drink a mug of Joe in the morning and then have a scoop of pre-workout before your afternoon run, you could surpass that recommended caffeine limit — and experience side effects such as restlessness, headaches, dizziness, anxiety, insomnia, and dehydration, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Not to mention, coffee may simply be easier to incorporate into your routine. "Coffee's potentially more enjoyable if you want to drink with your breakfast before you're workout," says Knott. "I would also say it's a bit more accessible in that if you're out and about, you can easily grab a coffee somewhere before a workout, whereas a pre-workout might require a bit more planning."

How to Use Coffee as a Pre-Workout Drink

Interested in using coffee as a workout enhancer? Consider drinking a cup or two (depending on your weight and caffeine tolerance) about an hour before heading to the gym or the cycling studio. If you're a total newbie to caffeine, however, take it slow to avoid those unpleasant side effects, suggests Knott. "Don't try to jump in and drink the 400 milligrams or even 200 milligrams right away," she says. "But if you're somebody who's accustomed to it, then in that case sticking to quantities you're accustomed to can definitely help to prevent some of those adverse effects."

You'll also want to avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach, which could cause gastrointestinal upset, says Knott. That's why she suggests pairing your cup of Joe with a carbohydrate-rich snack, which will also provide you with the fuel necessary to power through your workout. "Eat a slice of toast, top it off with some peanut butter and banana, and have your coffee," she recommends. "Do that in the hour before heading out for a run or whatever you're going to do...[and] that will potentially have a significant impact on your performance." If coffee makes you have to poop, don't fret: The post-java urge to have a BM typically occurs within half an hour of drinking the beverage, so you'll have some time to hit the restroom before you tackle your workout.

To ensure your pre-workout coffee doesn't disturb your sleep, consider drinking it only before a morning workout, suggests Chan. Most importantly, test pre-workout coffee on an average, insignificant gym day — not before an important race or competition — in case it affects you poorly on that first go-around, says Knott. "Don't drink coffee for the first time prior to a race," she says. "It's good to experiment with it and know how you react to it, so give yourself some time to adjust."

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